Asimov's empire

How Foundation became the story that powered space opera

Asimov's empire
Image: Apple

Happy Friday!

Apple's big science fiction series Foundation debuts on its streaming platform today. For decades, fans of Isaac Asimov's series have wanted to see an adaptation, but have had to contend with it simply influencing a considerable amount of SF canon. I've seen the first couple of episodes, and this week, we're going to talk about it — and some other related things.

Foundation is going to run through the next eight or so weeks: I'm planning to continue writing about the series as it plays out with a weekly recap — that'll be something that I'll send out to paid subscribers on either Friday or Saturday, with some additional discussion taking place in Transfer Orbit's Slack channel — I've opened up a dedicated room for the show's discussion. Come join us!

The story of Foundation

1966 was quite the year for science fiction. As fans gathered in Cleveland, Ohio for that year's World Science Fiction Convention, Tricon, NBC's Star Trek was just days from premiering, while fans had an impressive ballot in front of them for that year's Hugo Awards. That year's award contained a new, one-off category for Best All-Time Series — a showdown of the genre's best-known stories: Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, Robert A. Heinlein's Future History, E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. By the end of the evening, Asimov's trilogy took home the prize.

Ever since, Asimov's story of the dramatic fall of a galactic empire has been held up as one of science fiction's greatest stories, and accordingly, it's a story that's embedded in the DNA of the genre ever since, inspiring countless authors and readers, and changing the direction of the genre with each successive work.

For all of that influence, Foundation has a humble beginning. In his autobiography I, Asimov, Asimov outlined his fascination with history, and his love of historical novels, and that he'd always wanted to write one of his own. But the research was daunting and "impractical," and he noted that "it occurred to me that I could write a historical novel if I made up my own history. In other words, I might write a historical novel of the future, a science fiction story that read like a historical novel."

He points out that there had been works like this that had come out already: Olaf Stapleton's The Last and First Men and Star Makers are far-reaching future histories, and had already written a story that touched on those themes, 'Nightfall', in which a civilization on a perpetually-sunlit world collapses when all of its suns are eclipsed — something foreshadowed by the discovery of several ancient cities on the planet that met abrupt and violent ends. Asimov's love of history gave him some perspective on the ups and downs of humanity's existence, and how we've made the same mistakes over and over again, never quite learning from ourselves.

While traveling to New York City to meet with Astounding Science Fiction's John W. Campbell Jr., Asimov thought back to a series of books that he'd recently read: Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a six-part series that traced how the Roman empire collapsed and vanished. He had good reason to think back on the idea of a civilization in its death throes: across the Atlantic, Germany's Adolf Hitler had launched a brutal war against his European neighbors, and while the United States hadn't quite made it into the fight, it was edging closer and closer. On the train, the idea struck him: "Why shouldn't I write the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return of feudalism, written from the viewpoint of someone in the secure days of the Second Galactic Empire?" He mused in his other (shorter) autobiography It's Been A Good Life.

Arriving at Astounding's offices, he outlined his idea for his editor. "It was perhaps too catching," he wrote, "for Campbell blazed up as I had never seen him do." Campbell explained that what Asimov outlined wasn't suited for a short story: it would play out much better as a series of shorter works, and sent the hapless author on his way to provide him with an outline.

Campbell — for better and worse — is widely considered a founding father of the modern strains of science fiction, and after adjusting the genre and its readers expectations to focus on stories that relied on technical and scientific challenges, he began to explore the genre's potential when it came to sociology and the power of the human mind. Ever the hands-on editor, Asimov's story allowed him to imagine a branch of science, Psychohistory, which would allow scientists to try and predict the future, which Asimov described as a field that "enabled skilled psychohistorians to predict the mass currents of future history."

Asimov got to work, and published the first story, 'The Encyclopedist' in the May 1942 issue of Astounding (later titled 'Foundation'), and followed it up with 'The Bride and the Saddle' (Astounding, June 1942, later 'The Mayors'), 'The Big and the Little' (Astounding, August 1944, later 'The Merchant Princes'), 'The Wedge' (Astounding, October 1944, later 'The Traders'), 'Dead Hand (Astounding, April 1945, later 'The General'), 'The Mule' (Astounding, November and December 1945), 'Now You See It... (Astounding November / December 1949 and January 1950, later 'Search by the Foundation').

Over the course of the series, Asimov introduced readers to Hari Seldon, a scientist who predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire by way of his scientific method, and set about trying to shorten the unavoidable dark ages from 30,000 years to just a thousand. To do so, he sells his idea of the Encyclopedia Galactica, a comprehensive databank of all of humanity's knowledge, preserved at the far ends of the galaxy to prevent it from being lost in the coming wars and violence.

In reality, Seldon uses psychohistory to use the Foundation as a way to rekindle the Empire, and over the course of the first book, he takes his readers across the decades as the colony begins to assert itself and contend with its neighbors. Over the course of the second and third installments, the remnants of the Empire attacks the Foundation, and a new threat — the Mule, a man who can confound Seldon's original plans, emerges and presents a new threat to the new order.  

Writing in his (excellent) book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee explains that Asimov's star was rising, thanks in part to his series, but by the end of the 1940s, he wanted to move onto other things.

Around the same time, Asimov met a fan, Martin Greenberg, who had started up his own small publishing imprint, and convinced Asimov to let him publish some of his best-known stories. The result was 1950's I, Robot, a collection of the robot stories that Asimov had also been writing for various magazines, as well as the three volumes of his future history: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. They've since gone on to become some of Asimov's best-known works, and have left their mark on the science fiction that followed for decades.

I re-read Foundation earlier this summer, and came away from it with some conflicted feelings. On one hand, it's easy to see just why the book captured the imagination of science fiction fans. It's easy to look back at history and pick out the patterns and the things that appear obvious in hindsight, and extrapolate to imagine that if someone had enough knowledge and context, one might be able to use probability to try and predict human nature.

It's certainly an influential idea. Writing the foreword of The Folio Society's edition of the trilogy (more on that in a moment), economist Paul Krugman wrote that Asimov's book is "a unique masterpiece" and that "I've been struck these past several years by just how much power good economics has to make correct predictions that are very much at odds with popular prejudices and "common sense".

The force that drives Asimov's narrative is an understanding of power and how that's the underlying infrastructure that builds and shapes civilization. The Galactic Empire crumbles because it's become too unwieldy and stuck in its ways, while the Foundation grows amidst its hostile neighbors because its citizens are the ones who are armed with a powerful weapon: scientific knowledge, and the edge that Seldon's predictive science gives them. As Krugman notes, the success of the Foundation doesn't rest on a swashbuckling hero who comes in to save the day, but planning, building, and trusting in the long arm of human tendencies: "The barbarians were never going to prevail, because the Foundation's superior technology, packaged as religion, gave it the ability to play them off against each other. The warlord's weapons were no match for the Foundation's economic clout. And so on."

In his History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts outlines the appeal of the trilogy: "In part because it deals in big ideas: the logic governing history; the possibility of a properly scientific prophecy; what role, if ay, individuals have in larger historical circumstance."

That last one is a nugget that's tailor-made for the likes of science fiction, especially as we learn more and more about the greater universe around us. As Carl Sagan famously described our existence as a mote of dust clinging to a pale blue dot, science fiction authors have long explored how a single person can — or can't — change the fate of human existence. As such, Foundation has become one of those works that shows up in a lot of places — from the superficial ideas of a galactic encyclopedia, to the much larger ideas of trying to imagine which way humanity might trend.

With Foundation, Asimov planted plenty of seeds that plenty of authors have played with over the years. The shuddering of a Galactic Empire's foundations makes for enticing, dramatic fiction. Frank Herbert's Dune makes for a nice counterpoint to Foundation, while other books like Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire / A Desolation Called Peace, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, James S.A. Corey's later installments of The Expanse (Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath, and presumably Leviathan Falls), and John Scalzi's Interdependency trilogy (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, and The Last Emperox), Iain M. Banks' Culture series, and even properties like Star Wars and Star Trek all feel as though they're playing with some of the same tools, coming up with similar and different conclusions all at the same time.

Foundation — for all of its flaws and problems — is a book that I can see echoing throughout the genre today, highlighting our societal concerns and fears, and showcasing a central argument that I think bears taking to heart: we're prone to copy our mistakes if we don't learn from them, and build resiliently for the future.  

Apple's Foundation

Asimov published Foundation in the 1940s and 1950s, and later in his career, steadily expanded it with new stories and novels. But while the DNA of his books leaked out into other worlds — a movie or TV version of the series has remained elusive.

Part of that is the story itself: Foundation is a story that's heavy on dialogue and less on the dramatic action that powers video — most of the action takes place off-screen. It's no wonder that the first adaptation of the story was a BBC radio drama.

That's not to say that there hasn't been interest. In Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-earth, Ian Nathan recounts that in 1998, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye worked to try and get an adaptation off the ground, only to "come to loggerheads with the rights holders," and that after a year and a half of stalled development that went nowhere, ended up walking away from the project. Don't be sad for him, though: a month later, Peter Jackson pitched an adaptation of a little story called Lord of the Rings.

Others made the attempt as well: Shaye and his co-founder Michael Lynne made another attempt in 2008 with Warner Bros., while Roland Emmerich picked up the rights a year later for Columbia (he was working on it at least up through 2012, when he promised not to ruin it). That ultimately didn't go anywhere, and HBO tried to take a stab at it in 2014 with Interstellar's Jonathan Nolan behind it. The project eventually made its way to Apple, which greenlit the series in 2018.

Some spoilers ahead

Watching the first couple of episodes, it's pretty clear why this story took so long to get to the small screen, and from watching those first two episodes, I think Apple's taking a good direction on it. As noted, it's a famously dry story, but there is a lot of good stuff in it: an epic story of a Galactic Empire's fall, and the efforts of a small group of people to try and set up a softer fall for civilization.

While reading the novel this summer, there was a particular moment that struck me in one of the stories, 'The Mayors', in which the nascent Foundation is trying to exist amidst its more barbaric and feudal neighbors. Its agents recovered an Imperial battle cruiser, and refurbished it for Anacreon, rule by a regent and teenage king who want to overthrow the Foundation and take control. That doesn't happen: the Foundation anticipated the move, and essentially threw in a cutoff switch on the cruiser, stopping the potential attack. It all happens off-screen in the novel, but it's a dramatic display of the Foundation's knowledge the power that provides them over their neighbors.  

The first episode of the series, "The Emperor's Peace" introduces many of the familiar elements in the first story in the novel: we're introduced to Hari Seldon (played by the fantastic Jared Harris), Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), Raych Seldon (Alfred Enoch), first stopping by Trantor, before jumping back 35 years to Terminus and the seat of the Galactic Empire. There, we're introduced to something new: a trio of clones who rule the galaxy, brothers Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Day (Lee Pace), and Dusk (Terrence Mann), who have held onto power for nearly four thousand years.

They're understandably unhappy about Seldon's psychohistory-enabled predictions that the Galactic Empire is about to collapse and fall, and they're push back, eventually exiling Seldon and his followers to Terminus to set up the Foundation. There's some surprising moments, especially right at the end of episode 2.

All adaptations come with changes to make them more suited for its intended medium, and Foundation is no exception. I'm sure plenty of fans will rend their garments and tear at their beards over some of the changes that Apple brings to this, but I feel like what we get is a nicely updated version of the original story, one that shows that the show's writers have read and paid attention to what's important to the story, and chucked whatever wasn't necessary. Gaal and Salvor have been gender-flipped to women of color, and the larger world features not only women — by my count, Asimov only included two in the entirety of his novel — but the show's writers made sure to put together a diverse, multicultural world that you'd get from 25 million planets.

Showing off that world does something that I never really got a good sense of while reading the original novel: the stakes of the collapse of the Galactic Empire. It's an abstract thing that takes place almost entirely off-screen, and one of the thing that the show does take its time to do is not only show off some of the representatives of those worlds, but that there's real consequences to the Empire's brutality.

A colossal structure like an Empire doesn't fall without some splintering and fraying at the edges, and by watching a bit of a minor dispute play out between two worlds, we get a better sense of how the Empire is losing control. A terrorist attack brings down Trantor's space elevator, killing more than a hundred million people, and Day is out for revenge, striking out against the two worlds in dispute with one another, even though he knows that they're likely not responsible.

In Asimov's book, the Empire falls because it's fated to. In Apple's version, it seems like the fall is coming because Day (and his predecessors) quick to hold fast to the power they've grown up alongside. As Princess Leia says in Star Wars: A New Hope: "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

My verdict thus far? I think it's a solid take on Asimov's story, but wouldn't be surprised if it walks the line between adhering to the spirit / letter of the novels, while expanding the world beyond the pages of the book. From the sounds of things, they've got some big things lined up, and I'll be really eager to see where they take it.

As noted, I'll keep recapping the series in future, subscriber-only posts moving forward, although I might have some additional thoughts down the line. If you'd like to get those recaps moving forward, please consider signing up to support Transfer Orbit: you can find details here.

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Image: Andrew Liptak

Folio's Foundation

One thing that crossed my desk a while back is word that The Folio Society — a high-end publishing imprint that's a favorite of mine — is bringing back its Foundation trilogy.

For those of you who aren't acquainted with the publisher, it's based in London and has been around for more than fifty years, and doesn't generally print its own work — it puts together some very nice editions of literary classics, and in the last couple of years, they've produced some stunning versions of science fiction titles, such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man, Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous with Rama, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert's Dune, Ursula K. Le Guin's Dispossessed, Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea, and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (the first three books), and plenty more. Along with the actual book, they'll commission new forewords / afterwords / introductions, as well as original artwork to accompany the text.

Image: Andrew Liptak

They're very pretty books, printed on nice paper, come with good covers and a slipcase. I'm not much of a book collector, but I've picked up a number of these over the years, because they sit nicely on the shelf, and make for a good reading experience.

The company published Asimov's Foundation trilogy a number of years ago, but judging from a dedicated Folio Society collector's group that I lurk in, it's been a hot commodity, because they only produced it for a short time. Now, the book will be available once again next month. At $195, it's a bit on the pricey side (these are books aimed at collectors, rather than casual readers), but it's a very pretty trio of books, judging by the copy that they provided me.

As with their other books, this is a really nice edition. It comes with the aforementioned foreword from Krugman, and art from Alex Wells. I've got an older, omnibus edition of the trilogy that I won't part with — I like the cover art — but this sits nicely alongside that book: it's got all of those attributes that make the Folio books nice volumes. This one's a good one to pick up.

That's all this week — this has been a long post, and I don't have much in the way of current / further readings to add this edition.

Have a good weekend, let me know what you thought of Foundation (if you watched it), and as always, thanks for reading.